Driving the coastal route from Russell south to Auckland offers some of the best coastal scenery in New Zealand.
Among the myriad white sand beaches lapped by the turquoise waters of the 'winterless north' are the many familiar holiday havens like Whangaruru, Mimiwhangata, and Matapouri Bay. Yet there are many more hidden gems to beguile the traveller who takes the time to explore the roads less travelled.
When we were offered the opportunity to test drive a second-hand, two-berth Mercedes Sprinter 311 CDI, we quickly made plans for a short break in coastal Mid-Northland.
In the past few years, I've returned numerous times to motorhome-friendly Whangarei for a wander along the vibrant edge of the town basin.
Motorhomers are welcome to stay overnight here in the designated parking spot which is near to shops and restaurants. Pak'nSave is right across the road, and Countdown is located just a few blocks away in a busy shopping centre near the Warehouse and other major chain stores.
Here you'll also find a number of takeaway food outlets, if you fancy grabbing a bite to eat to enjoy while parked up somewhere on the waterfront.
After stocking up on essentials, we nosed the Sprinter toward Whangarei Heads. Beyond the busy suburb of Onerahi — where you'll also find a New World supermarket, liquor outlets, and a variety of other shops — the landscape becomes more rural.
Look out for farm gate sales to your left. On the right you will mostly be enjoying the close up water views from the road, which happily follows the glorious Whangarei Harbour from this point.
We were headed to Blue Heron Holiday Park for our first night. This delightful holiday park is on a tiny peninsula off Scotts Road, about 8km east of Onerahi. Once found, we were soon ensconced in our waterfront powered site, with the still water of the harbour lapping gently at the three sides of this unique campground.
The campground's new manager, David Shield, told us the fishing here was superb. The day before he'd caught snapper right off the point, and the following morning we spotted a well-attired woman with her skirts hitched up around her as she waded along close to the shoreline, flounder spear poised to strike.
We enjoyed a delightful evening stroll on a well-marked coastal track, fringed by mature pohutukawa and puriri, to Tamaterau. On the way back we were rewarded with the close-up sight of a blue heron resting on the boughs of a tree teetering above the water.
Bird lovers will also enjoy sharing the park with tui, fantail, wood pigeon, and kingfishers. In fact, wildlife spotting has been a pastime in this park since it was established in the 1940s. We were told of regular sightings of dolphins, orca, and even sea turtles.
Other activities nearby include tennis at Tamaterau; golf at the The Pines Golf Course, just 1.5km away; horseback treks from the nearby stables; hiking up Mount Manaia; and all manner of water sports.
Our next stopover was to be a much-anticipated stay at Whananaki North. Strangely enough, we found ourselves 70km north in Paihia for the morning, having driven there on a whim. It was buzzy and a most enjoyable way to spend the first part of the day.
Finally at North Whananaki, we were invited by Whananaki Holiday Park owner-operator Betty Carson to choose from any powered site near the estuary. Betty and her husband Jeff were harvesting their olives and pressing oil. She said we'd be welcome to bring a container and share some. Betty also offered fresh tomatoes and herbs.
This was an outstanding welcome and one I will long remember – along with the stunning surrounds.
North Whananaki is linked to South Whananaki by the longest footbridge in the Southern Hemisphere. By a delicious twist of fate, the access to this footbridge was just metres from our site and we headed off to explore quite soon after arriving.
The tide was out, so we skirted the estuary along sand-flats and grass verges in front of dinky baches, before turning along a dusty road which seemed to run parallel to the coast.
We were unsure if there was beach access across the private land, but a few hundred metres away the road took a dog-leg to the right and a rustic parking lot appeared on our left. From here it was a quick bound up a sandy path to the unexpected vista of the ocean and a broad sandy beach.
I would definitely stay at Whananaki Holiday Park again, although there are two other options: the DOC camp at lovely Otumure, and Motutara Farm – a 75ha farm where campers who do not require power can spread out along two beautiful pohutukawa fringed beaches, Kings Beach and Barrons Beach.
There is a great deal to do here and I only wished we had more time. Tearing ourselves away from lovely Whananaki, the only consolation was the thought of our next destination – another favourite place: Mangawhai Heads.
But I'll tell you about that another time…
Mid-Northland travel tips
- Roads in this region are often winding, so allow plenty of time to reach your coastal destination.
- Whangarei is the gateway to the Tutukaka Coast, renowned for its deep-sea fishing and easy access to the rich sub-tropical diving of the Poor Knights Marine Reserve.
- The fully-stocked store adjacent to serviced Whananaki North Holiday Park has dive fills, kayak hire, and takeaways. There is a boat-launching facility nearby.
- Scenic walks near Whananaki include the Capitaine Bougainville Memorial track and part of Te Araroa (the New Zealand Trail). It is a two-hour walk to the surf haven of Sandy Bay.
- A well-formed back route south from Whananaki runs along Jubilee Road to join coastal
- Matapouri Road which will take you past more holiday havens.
- Whangarei is just 160 kilometres north of Auckland and 153 kilometres from Kaitaia.
- Whananaki North is 40 kilometres north-east of Whangarei; 28 kilometres east of SH1. Turn right just north of Hikurangi.
- The nearest campground to Whangarei Heads is Blue Heron Holiday Park at Tamaterau, eight kilometres east of Onerahi, around 11 kilometres from the Heads.
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